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The World’s E-Waste Has Reached a Crisis Point

The World’s E-Waste Has Reached a Crisis Point

The phone or computer you’re reading this on may not be long for this world. Maybe you’ll drop it in water, or your dog will make a chew toy of it, or it’ll reach obsolescence. If you can’t repair it and have to discard it, the device will become e-waste, joining an alarmingly large mountain of defunct TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, cameras, routers, electric toothbrushes, headphones. This is “electrical and electronic equipment,” aka EEE—anything with a plug or battery. It’s increasingly out of control.

As economies develop and the consumerist lifestyle spreads around the world, e-waste has turned into a full-blown environmental crisis. People living in high-income countries own, on average, 109 EEE devices per capita, while those in low-income nations have just four. A new UN report finds that in 2022, humanity churned out 137 billion pounds of e-waste—more than 17 pounds for every person on Earth—and recycled less than a quarter of it.

That also represents about $62 billion worth of recoverable materials, like iron, copper, and gold, hitting e-waste landfills each year. At this pace, e-waste will grow by 33 percent by 2030, while the recycling rate could decline to 20 percent. (You can see this growth in the graph below: purple is EEE on the market, black is e-waste, and green is what gets recycled.)

Graph displaying ewaste generation

Courtesy of UN Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

“What was really alarming to me is that the speed at which this is growing is much quicker than the speed that e-waste is properly collected and recycled,” says Kees Baldé, a senior scientific specialist at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and lead author of the report. “We just consume way too much and we dispose of things way too quickly. We buy things that we may not even need, because it’s just very cheap. And also these products are not designed to be repaired.”

Humanity has to quickly bump up those recycling rates, the report stresses. In the first pie chart below, you can see the significant amount of metals we could be saving, mostly iron (chemical symbol Fe, in light gray), along with aluminum (Al, in dark gray), copper (Cu), and nickel (Ni). Other EEE metals include zinc, tin, and antimony. Overall, the report found that in 2022, generated e-waste contained 68 billion pounds of metal.

Graphs displaying recoverable and nonrecoverable metals in ewaste

Courtesy of UN Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

Solar-Powered Farming Is Quickly Depleting the World’s Groundwater Supply

Solar-Powered Farming Is Quickly Depleting the World’s Groundwater Supply

That is certainly the case in Yemen, on the south flank of the Arabian Peninsula, where the desert sands have a new look these days. Satellite images show around 100,000 solar panels glinting in the sun, surrounded by green fields. Hooked to water pumps, the panels provide free energy for farmers to pump out ancient underground water. They are irrigating crops of khat, a shrub whose narcotic leaves are the country’s stimulant of choice, chewed through the day by millions of men.

For these farmers, the solar irrigation revolution in Yemen is born of necessity. Most crops will only grow if irrigated, and the country’s long civil war has crashed the country’s electricity grid and made supplies of diesel fuel for pumps expensive and unreliable. So, they are turning en masse to solar power to keep the khat coming.

The panels have proved an instant hit, says Middle East development researcher Helen Lackner of SOAS University of London. Everybody wants one. But in the hydrological free-for-all, the region’s underground water, a legacy of wetter times, is running out.

The solar-powered farms are pumping so hard that they have triggered “a significant drop in groundwater since 2018 … in spite of above average rainfall,” according to an analysis by Leonie Nimmo, a researcher who was until recently at the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory. The spread of solar power in Yemen “has become an essential and life-saving source of power,” both to irrigate food crops and provide income from selling khat, he says, but it is also “rapidly exhausting the country’s scarce groundwater reserves.”

In the central Sana’a Basin, Yemen’s agricultural heartland, more than 30 percent of farmers use solar pumps. In a report with Musaed Aklan, a water researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Lackner predicts a “complete shift” to solar by 2028. But the basin may be down to its last few years of extractable water. Farmers who once found water at depths of 100 feet or less are now pumping from 1,300 feet or more.

Some 1,500 miles to the northeast, in in the desert province of Helmand in Afghanistan, more than 60,000 opium farmers have in the past few years given up on malfunctioning state irrigation canals and switched to tapping underground water using solar water pumps. As a consequence, water tables have been falling typically by 10 feet per year, according to David Mansfield, an expert on the country’s opium industry from the London School of Economics.

An abrupt ban on opium production imposed by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in 2022 may offer a partial reprieve. But the wheat that the farmers are growing as a replacement is also a thirsty crop. So, water bankruptcy in Helmand may only be delayed.

“Very little is known about the aquifer [in Helmand], its recharge or when and if it might run dry,” according to Mansfield. But if their pumps run dry, many of the million-plus people in the desert province could be left destitute, as this vital desert resource—the legacy of rainfall in wetter times—disappears for good.

The US Buried Nuclear Waste Abroad. Climate Change Could Unearth It

The US Buried Nuclear Waste Abroad. Climate Change Could Unearth It

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Ariana Tibon was in college at the University of Hawaii in 2017 when she saw the photo online: a black-and-white picture of a man holding a baby. The caption said: “Nelson Anjain getting his baby monitored on March 2, 1954, by an AEC RadSafe team member on Rongelap two days after ʻBravo.’”

Tibon had never seen the man before. But she recognized the name as her great-grandfather’s. At the time, he was living on Rongelap in the Marshall Islands when the US conducted Castle Bravo, the largest of 67 nuclear weapon tests there during the Cold War. The tests displaced and sickened Indigenous people, poisoned fish, upended traditional food practices, and caused cancers and other negative health repercussions that continue to reverberate today.

A federal report by the Government Accountability Office published last month examines what’s left of that nuclear contamination, not only in the Pacific but also in Greenland and Spain. The authors conclude that climate change could disturb nuclear waste left in Greenland and the Marshall Islands. “Rising sea levels could spread contamination in RMI, and conflicting risk assessments cause residents to distrust radiological information from the US Department of Energy,” the report says.

In Greenland, chemical pollution and radioactive liquid are frozen in ice sheets, left over from a nuclear power plant on a US military research base where scientists studied the potential to install nuclear missiles. The report didn’t specify how or where nuclear contamination could migrate in the Pacific or Greenland, or what if any health risks that might pose to people living nearby. However, the authors did note that in Greenland, frozen waste could be exposed by 2100.

“The possibility to influence the environment is there, which could further affect the food chain and further affect the people living in the area as well,” said Hjalmar Dahl, president of Inuit Circumpolar Council Greenland. The country is about 90 percent Inuit. “I think it is important that the Greenland and US governments have to communicate on this worrying issue and prepare what to do about it.”

The authors of the GAO study wrote that Greenland and Denmark haven’t proposed any cleanup plans, but also cited studies that say much of the nuclear waste has already decayed and will be diluted by melting ice. However, those studies do note that chemical waste such as polychlorinated biphenyls, man-made chemicals better known as PCBs that are carcinogenic, “may be the most consequential waste at Camp Century.”

The report summarizes disagreements between Marshall Islands officials and the US Department of Energy regarding the risks posed by US nuclear waste. The GAO recommends that the agency adopt a communications strategy for conveying information about the potential for pollution to the Marshallese people.

Nathan Anderson, a director at the Government Accountability Office, said that the United States’ responsibilities in the Marshall Islands “are defined by specific federal statutes and international agreements.” He noted that the government of the Marshall Islands previously agreed to settle claims related to damages from US nuclear testing.

“It is the long-standing position of the US government that, pursuant to that agreement, the Republic of the Marshall Islands bears full responsibility for its lands, including those used for the nuclear testing program.”

To Tibon, who is back home in the Marshall Islands and is currently chair of the National Nuclear Commission, the fact that the report’s only recommendation is a new communications strategy is mystifying. She’s not sure how that would help the Marshallese people.

“What we need now is action and implementation on environmental remediation. We don’t need a communication strategy,” she said. “If they know that it’s contaminated, why wasn’t the recommendation for next steps on environmental remediation, or what’s possible to return these lands to safe and habitable conditions for these communities?”

The Biden administration recently agreed to fund a new museum to commemorate those affected by nuclear testing as well as climate change initiatives in the Marshall Islands, but the initiatives have repeatedly failed to garner support from Congress, even though they’re part of an ongoing treaty with the Marshall Islands and a broader national security effort to shore up goodwill in the Pacific to counter China.

Frequent Heavy Rain Has Made California a Mudslide Hotspot

Frequent Heavy Rain Has Made California a Mudslide Hotspot

This story originally appeared on Inside Climate News and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Picture the minute hand at about 8 past the hour. That’s the slope of Viet’s backyard in southern Los Angeles County. It’s a bit too aggressive for a slip-and-slide. In fact, Viet doesn’t even let his 7-year-old daughter play on the family’s small back patio.

“I don’t need her falling down that hill,” he said.

When Viet and his wife bought their house-on-a-hill five years ago, it was a win, their piece of “the Hollywood Riviera,” as real estate agents like to call the area. (A self-employed marketer in his forties, Viet asked that his last name not be used to protect his family’s privacy.)

Viet’s street runs horizontally across a huge incline that begins the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a marvel of steep cliffs and Mediterranean-style homes at the south hook of Santa Monica Bay. If you squint, it could be the terraced hills of Tuscany or, indeed, a stretch of the Côte d’Azur. The address was a solid investment and housing insurance not a problem, even though parts of the peninsula have been known to shape-shift, cracking roads and knocking houses off foundations. But not every day. The family enjoyed some easy SoCal years on their perch with its great views and gentle, dry climate.

“Whenever it rained, we’d be happy: ‘We’re not in a severe drought anymore, yay!’” Viet said. “But after this, every time it rains, I get scared.”

“This” was the atmospheric river storms that hit LA with a one-two punch (the first, a jab, the second, a wallop) in the first week of February. The usual winter rainy season in California has been amped up this year by a parade of such storms. This week again, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and LA counties are in the midst of high-volume, road-cracking, flash-flooding, climate-amplified downpours juiced by warmer Pacific Ocean temperatures. The storms are causing an unusual amount of high-profile damage, setting everyone on edge, especially Viet.

After the initial rain burst on February 1, he noticed that the top of his backyard slope, swathed in a hand-high succulent called “ice plant,” looked odd. A patch of mushy soil seemed to be shrugging off its ground cover. He asked a gardener to try and fix it. That was a Friday. Then the monster rain cells moved in on Sunday, February 3.

“All night, all I could hear was pounding on the roof, the wind blowing sideways,” he said. “It was unsettling, so when I woke up at 7:30, the first thing I did was try to go look at the rain drains and make sure everything was doing fine.”

Viet circled his home in sneakers because he’d never had cause to buy rain boots.

“I walked around to the backyard, looked down, and I was like, ‘Ohhhhh myyyyyy goooood.’”

A 40-foot-wide river of mud, rock, and roots was in full flow down his hill, already jamming up a city road 70 feet below where Viet stood, somehow safe, on the precipice.

What Would Happen if Every American Got a Heat Pump

What Would Happen if Every American Got a Heat Pump

“The answer ended up being, yes, in all US states, on average heat pumps will reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Eric Wilson, a senior research engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the lead author of the new paper. “Even if it’s a relatively low-efficiency heat pump that relies on electric resistance heating during the coldest times, and even if it’s the most pessimistic grid scenario that has prices for wind and solar being higher than their current trajectory has been.”

Because a heat pump can be reversed to provide cooling, getting more of the devices into homes could also improve public health during the summer, the study notes. That is, with a heat pump, a home that has never had AC now has a way to ensure comfortable indoor temperatures. That’ll be all the more critical as outdoor temperatures march relentlessly upward, especially in cities, where the built environment absorbs and slowly releases the sun’s energy. The tricky bit is that even though a heat pump can be more efficient at cooling than a traditional AC unit, its operating cost during the summer may surprise a household that has never had AC before.

It’s important to note that a household will get the most out of a heat pump if it also opts for better insulation. If you have double-paned windows, for instance, less of that indoor heating or cooling will escape in the winter or summer. That sort of insulation comes with its own upfront cost, sure, but reduces the upfront cost of the heat pump by thousands of dollars, the new study finds: If your home is sealed nice and tight, you’ll require a smaller, less expensive device to provide proper warming. “I worry a little bit about people putting in heat pumps in very poorly insulated homes, and just not being comfortable,” says Wilson. (To that end, the Inflation Reduction Act provides 30 percent off the cost of insulation. The legislation also offers thousands of bucks to upgrade your home’s electrical system, which may be required to accommodate a new heat pump.)

The study further notes that if deploying lowest-efficiency heat pumps, energy bills could increase in 39 percent of households, but that drops to 19 percent if they also reinsulate. (This is based on state-average energy prices from the winter of 2021-2022.) When using higher-efficiency heat pumps, only 5 percent of households could see an increase in their energy bills. The upfront cost of this insulation or higher-efficiency heat pumps could be offset by financial incentives, the study says, like those provided by the IRA.

This modeling isn’t predicting the future, but calculating scenarios for how the adoption of heat pumps could unfold in the US. In the coming years, the heat pump industry could well generate surprises—the good kind—especially as the US invests hundreds of millions of dollars into domestic production. “What are the efficiency improvements, the surprising innovations, the leaps here that one can only get when you in fact start deploying these at scale?” asks climate economist Gernot Wagner of the Columbia Business School, who wasn’t involved in the paper.